Page images
PDF
EPUB

power, with a population confined to the shores of its few and short navigable rivers, undistinguished by either culture or enterprise, and embarrassed by African slavery, was undergoing the necessary preparation for that struggle with the moral and physical resistances which was at no distant day to be crowned with its inauguration as the leading state in the new Federal Union. The United States had achieved legal independence of Great Britain, and were perplexed with the responsibility of adopting an untried and purely experimental structure of government under which to contest by legislation, by diplomacy, and even hy war, for that real commercial independence and that practical political independence which the European states pertinaciously refused to them. Until that time the several states had been supreme, and their statesmen had exercised control, while the confederation was subordinate and its agents powerless. Centralization was now to begin, and ultimately was to reverse these relations. The new federal government was to enter the states, modifying the action of the respective forces, and they were to struggle as they might for the maintenance and preservation of reserved rights of sovereignty which were indispensable. The equality and sovereignty of the people were now newly and practically established, and the arena of public service open to all competitors. George Clinton differed from Hamilton, Jay and Schuyler concerning the merits of the federal constitution, and gave to its adoption only a reluctant and distrustful support. The temper of the time was uncharitable. His confessed integrity, heroic services and practical wisdom, were held by the friends of the new system insufficient to excuse this error, nor could he on his part accord his confidence to those of his compatriots who he thought were rashly subverting necessary foundations of public liberty. Holding the office of gov. ernor, which then was a station of the greatest dignity and influence, he became at once the head of the republican or anti-federal party within the state, and was immediately engaged in a contest, which involved all the stakes of a generous and noble ambition. Numbers were on his side, but talents and the influences which favored the new federal government were against him. De Witt Clinton's ardent temper and earnest ambition carried him at once into the political field, and his sentiments, sympathies and affections determined his position under the banner of his kinsman, the chief within the state of the republican party. While the question of the adoption of the federal constitution was yet a subject of popular discussion, be proved his zeal and controversial power by writing a series of letters signed “A Countryman,” in reply to the celebrated letters of the “Federalist.” He attended the state convention which adopted the constitution and reported its interesting debates for the press, and forsaking his profession at once and forever, he became the pri. vate secretary of George Clinton, the governor of New York. In this position he maintained the cause of his kinsman, and that of the republic, by such a vigorous use of the press that he immediately came to be regarded as its leading and most prominent champion. Thus early, he established that character of a partisan politician which he maintained ever afterward. But the official position which he held, though humble, afforded him an opportunity to devote himself to measures and policies important to the public safety and welfare, and the spirit with which he engaged in duties of that kind procured for him two other appointments, one of secretary of the newly organized board of regents of the university, and the other of secretary of the board of commissioners of fortifications of the state. So it happened, that he laid in the beginning of his public life the foundations of that superstructure of useful service which constitutes the enduring monument of his fame.

George Clinton was continued in the office of governor by repeated elections; but the federal party continually gained ground, and in 1792 a decided majority of votes were cast for John Jay, its candidate for that office. The returns, however, were held defective in form, and the credentials were given once more to George Clinton. It was manifest, in 1795, that the federalists must prevail. George Clinton voluntarily retired, and Mr. Jay was chosen his

De Witt Clinton relinquished his offices, but did not relax his championship of the republican cause, in opposition to the administration of Mr. Jay in the state, and to the administration of Jobn Adams at Washington. His opponents insisted then, as they did ever afterward, that he conducted political controversies with rancor and bitterness. Doubtlessly his language was often vehement and criminatory, and an aggressive personality marks his papers, which, if used at this day, would be universally condemned, and would detract from an otherwise just effect. But Junius was the model adopted by nearly all political writers at that period, and scarcely any controversy was conducted, on either political or eccle

successor.

siastical questions, without the mutual use of unsparing invectives. We can, therefore, judge but very imperfectly of the relative demerits of Mr. Clinton in this respect. With all his vehemence of partizan feelings, however, he nevertheless adhered to the line of patriotic conduct he had so early marked out for himself. Thus, while assailing the administration of Mr. Adams and the federalists for their alleged hostility toward France, he raised, equipped, commanded and disciplined an artillery company, which was held in readiness for the defense of the country in the event of the occurrence of war then so generally anticipated. Besides these occupations, he applied himself diligently to the studies of natural philosophy, natural history and other sciences. His adversaries were accustomed, then and afterward, to disparage iiis acquisitions as superficial and pretentious; but a candid examination of his writings will induce us to concede, what then was claimed by his friends, that his proficiency was such as to qualify him for the chair of a professor in many departments of academic knowledge. Truly learned men always cheerfully conceded to him distinguished merit.

The republican party grew rapidly in the state and in the country, under the embarrassed and unpopular administration of John Adams. Mr. Clinton was sent to the assembly, the lower house of the legislature of New York, by the city of New York, in 1797, and in the next year he was chosen by the electors of the southern district to represent them in the senate of the state for a term of four years. The republican party triumphing in the Union in 1800, carried also a majority in the state of New York, although John Jay still remained in office. Official patronage in the state was by its first constitution committed to the governor, together with a council consisting of one senator from each district, chosen by a vote of the house of assembly. The governor presided in the council, and habitually exercised exclusively the right of nomination, leaving only to the council the power to confirm or reject. During the administration of George Clinton, his opponents, when in a majority in the council, had claimed for each member a right of nomination coördinate with that of the governor; but the pretension was disallowed by governor Clinton, and the original practice remained. De Witt Clinton, in 1801, became a member of the council, backed by a republican majority. He now challenged the right of nomination for himself and his associates. The governor denied it, and Voi. IV.

27

adjourned the council, and never afterward reconvened it. He submitted the subject to the legislature, and appealed to that body for a declaratory law. Mr. Clinton vigorously defended the position assumed by him in the council. The legislature referred the matter to a convention of the people. The republican party predominated in that body, and the constitution was amended so as to effect the object at which Mr. Clinton had aimed. It can hardly be denied that on the question of construction of the constitution, as it originally stood, the position of Mr. Clinton was untenable. Experience proved that the innovation was unwise. The spirit of party had now become intense. It must be believed, in charity to both parties, that each sincerely, though erroneously, doubted the loyalty of the other to institutions yet new, and to a form of government the ultimate stability of which was still deemed uncertain. Proscription was a natural result of this diseased condition of the public mind. It broke forth suddenly, and became violent and undiscriminating. Thenceforth every change of public opinion in the state was followed by removal of all public officers not protected by the constitution and laws. The temper of political debate became more than ever acrimonious. Cupidity and ambition became bold and exacting Parties divided into personal factions, and then again centered into new and disquieting forms of recombination. It was then that the names of factions and parties became confused and unmeaning; the politics of the state became a mystery to observers beyond its limits, and acquired proverbially the characteristics of intrigue and violence.

Perhaps it is true that De Witt Clinton was justly responsible, in a considerable degree, for the inauguration of this reign of license, as his opponents always contended. But, if we judge the parties and the men of that day by the test of general principles, or even if we allow them the consideration of the characters which they ultimately maintained, we must conclude that the faults and errors which thus brought reproach upon them all was found exclusively on the side of no individual, nor of any one party or faction, but were, in some sense, incidents of the times and of a peculiar stage of republican society. However this may be, it is certain that Mr. Clinton, at the same time, acted, well and nobly, a higher and more patriotic part, aside from the partisan transactions in which he was thus en gaged. It was a season of apprehended invasion. He was active and efficient in securing the means of public defense. The public health was continually threatened by the approach of contagious pestilence. He was unremitting and judicious in providing the necessary sanitary laws and institutions. He urged improvements of the laws favorable to agriculture, manufactures, and the arts; labored to stimulate the great and finally successful efforts of the time to bring steam into use as an agent of navigation; and employed all his talents and influence in meliorating the evils of imprisonment for debt, and in abolishing slavery. At the very early age of thirtythree, his term of brilliant service in the senate of the state was crowned by his appointment to a seat in the senate of the United States. He remained in that body throughout two of its annual sessions. The period, though short, sufficed to enable him to impress upon the country a conviction of his great ability, and to augment as well as enlarge the sphere of his already eminent reputation. His principal achievement there was an elaborate, exhaustive and impressive speech in favor of moderation on the occasion of a high popular excitement against Spain, resulting from her violation of treaty stipulations for commercial privileges to the citizens of the United States on the banks of the Mississippi—the territory of Louisiana not yet having been acquired by the United States.

Mr. Clinton resigned his place in the senate of the United States, to assume the office of mayor of the city of New York, under an appointment made by George Clinton and a republican council of appointment in 1803—that distinguished man having now again been elevated to the office of governor of the state. The mayoralty was attractive to Mr. Clinton, because, under the charter of the city, the powers and duties belonging to it were manifold; its responsibilities, in that period of perplexity in the foreign relations of the country, were great, its patronage not inconsiderable, and its emoluments large. Noris it to be doubted that, in the confused condition of the domestic politics of the state, when rivalries, dangerous to his distinguished kinsman and himself, were manifesting themselves in many ways, it was thought important that he should be at home to defend and protect personal interests thus exposed. Nevertheless, it was a misfortune to Mr. Clinton to break

up

a relation so grave as that of a senator in congress to his constituency, so suddenly, and upon considerations of personal advantage. Nor can it be doubted now, that, having regard to merely individual interests, the change thus made, from the higher and more distant national theatre to the lower and nearer municipal one, filled

« PreviousContinue »